• Karla Wolford

What are High-Intensity Sweeteners anyway?



CrossFit is the prescription of constantly varied, high intensity, functional movements. And there are many people out there who would classify CrossFit itself as “high intensity” or “intense.” We mean, c’mon. You don’t get called a ‘cult’ for playing it safe.

Today however, we want to talk about high-intensity sweeteners. The follow up to our first sugar blog, The Sweet Escape.

High-intensity sweeteners are sugar substitutes but aptly named due to the fact that they are so many times sweeter than actual sugar, that food and beverage manufacturers need 1/64th or some times 1/2000th the amount of sugar in their products to make them taste sweet.

Because so little of these sugar substitutes are needed, they contribute few to zero calories when added to foods or beverages. The FDA says that these foods must be safe for consumption (it doesn’t declare “human consumption” just consumption) but we’d like to break down these sweeteners and their governmental approvals for you.

So now that we know what high-intensity sweeteners are, let’s learn how they’re approved.

There are two ways that high-intensity sweeteners will make it into foods that you consume.

One is as a food additive, the other is through Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status.

Food additives must undergo premarket review and approval by the FDA before it can be used in foods.

On the other hand, if the sweetener only has GRAS status, it is not subject to the FDAs premarket review or approval. Instead, GRAS status allows for the manufacturer to make the GRAS determination. They must use “scientific procedures.” Individuals “Qualified by scientific training and experience” can evaluate the safety of this substance and conclude, based on the information they publish publicly, that it’s safe to consume on the conditions of intended use.

A company can make an independent GRAS determination for a substance with or without notifying FDA.

Regardless of whether a substance is approved for use as a food additive or its use is determined to be GRAS, scientists must determine that it meets the safety standard of reasonable certainty of no harm under the intended conditions of its use. This standard of safety is defined in FDA’s regulations.



What are the FDA Approved High-Intensity Sweeteners?

Six high-intensity sweeteners are FDA-approved as food additives in the United States: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame.

GRAS notices have been submitted to FDA for two types of high-intensity sweeteners (certain steviol glycosides obtained from the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni) and extracts obtained from Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo or monk fruit).

These ingredients will be on the ingredient list on the packaging of whatever food you are consuming that contains these sweeteners. The product manufactures are not required to list the amounts included.

How much is safe to consume?

The FDA has established Acceptable Daily Limits (ADI) for each of the FDA approved high-intensity sweeteners. Chart of acceptable limits Here. We can assume that the FDA does not require food manufacturers to list the amount of these sweeteners on the labels due to the fact that they’ve concluded that due to the high concentration, “the estimated daily intake, even for a high consumer of the substance would not exceed the ADI.”

However, it’s worth noting that steviol glycosides, have an ADI that was established by the Joint Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). And an ADI has not been specified for monk fruit.

Are there any high-intensity sweeteners NOT approved by the FDA?

Actually, yes.

Cyclamates and its salts (such as calcium cyclamate, sodium cyclamate, magnesium cyclamate, and potassium cyclamate) are currently prohibited from use in the United States. Whole-leaf and crude stevia extracts are subject to an Import Alert and are also not permitted for use as sweeteners. The FDA notes that these are different than the Steviol Glycosides that have GRAS status to be used as high-intensity sweeteners.



What the FDA says about it’s sweeteners:


Saccharin


TLDR; Currently FDA approved (except for when they tried to ban it in the 70’s) and they say it’s safe because even though rats got cancer, studies on humans have never produced the same results. It’s not very prevalent today.


Other names: Saccharin brand names include Sweet and Low®, Sweet Twin®, Sweet'N Low®, and Necta Sweet®.


Sweetness compared to sugar: It is 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), and it does not contain any calories.


FDA Status: FDA Approved for certain uses like in drinks, mixes and in cooking.


Other Facts: The FDA tried to ban saccharin in the late 70’s due to some studies that found links between saccharin intake and the development of cancer in rodents. Congress mandated more studies and after more than 30 human trials, no studies show a causal relationship between saccharin and cancer development in humans and so the FDA still has saccharin approved for human consumption. Keeping in mind that no studies have shown a causal relationship, there are studies that show a correlation between saccharin consumption and cancer.


Saccharin is nearly non-existent in today’s diet foods and beverages. Aspartame and sucralose have really taken over - but saccharin is pretty much only found in Tab (which was introduced in the 20s and just discontinued in 2020) and a few other fountain drinks, and in the sweetener Sweet’N Low, where it’s present in tiny amounts.




Aspartame


TLDR; FDA approved since 1974 and they say it’s safe and have reviewed 100+ studies supporting it’s safety for humans with the exception of people with PKU.


Other Names: Aspartame brand names include Nutrasweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin®. It does contain calories, but because it is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar, consumers are likely to use much less of it.


Sweetness compared to sugar: ?

FDA Status: The FDA has approved aspartame in many different items and as a “general purpose sweetener.” However, aspartame isn’t heat stable so it’s not used in cooking or baking.

Other Facts: Aspartame was introduced in 1974 and approved by the FDA in 1981. According to the FDA, “Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety.”


They do note that individuals with a hereditary disease known as phenylketonuria (PKU) have a hard time metabolizing a component of aspartame and should controle intake from all sources. As such, products that contain aspartame have to include a statement that informs individuals with PKU that it contains phenylalanine (an amino acid).


Aspartame has been heavily researched in more than 90 countries, many of which have demonstrated that aspartame is safe for human consumption. There have been a few that found exposure to aspartame is associated with various cancers in rats and mice. Other experiments have shown that the doses of aspartame required to pose a danger to humans are extreme, far more than what any normal person could consume in one day. Like 19 cans of Diet Coke in one day extreme.


Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)


TLDR; FDA approved since 1988 and they say it’s safe and have reviewed 90+ studies supporting it’s safety for humans. Very few human studies available and one breakdown is toxic in large doses but we likely will never consume doses that large.


Other Names: It is included in the ingredient list on the food label as acesulfame K, acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K. Acesulfame potassium is sold under the brand names Sunett® and Sweet One®.


Sweetness compared to sugar: It is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and is often combined with other sweeteners.


FDA Status: The FDA approved acesulfame potassium for use in specific food and beverage categories in 1988, and in 2003 approved it as a general purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer in food, except in meat and poultry, under certain conditions of use. It’s heat stable so it can be used as a sugar substitute in baking.


Other Facts: The FDA says that “more than 90 studies support its safety.”


Ace-K does not increase insulin and contains 0 calories. However, one breakdown product of ace-k is known as acetoacetamide, which is known to be toxic if consumed in very large doses - but the amounts of acetoacetamide found in spoonfuls of Ace-k are far below dangerous levels.


And despite the FDA’s claim that there are 90 studies to support Ace-K’s safety - human studies are very rare.



Sucralose


TLDR; FDA approved since 1998 and they say it’s safe and have reviewed 110+ studies supporting it’s safety for humans. Very prevalent today.


Other Names: Sucralose is sold under the brand name Splenda®.


Sweetness compared to sugar: Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar.


FDA Status: Approved as a non-nutritive sweetener (contains no calories). FDA approved sucralose for use in 15 food categories in 1998 and for use as a general purpose sweetener for foods in 1999, under certain conditions of use.


It can be found in baked goods, beverages, chewing gum, gelatins, and frozen dairy desserts. It’s heat stable so acceptable to use in baking.


Other Facts: The FDA states that it reviewed over 110 studies, like this one, to approve it’s safety.


Although sucralose is made from sugar, the human body doesn’t recognize it as sugar, so it doesn’t raise insulin levels. Most of the sucralose we consume is excreted as waste - while the 11-27% is absorbed into the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal tract, removed from the blood by the kidneys, and eliminated through our urine.


Neotame


TLDR; FDA approved since 2002 and they say it’s safe and have reviewed 113+ studies supporting it’s safety for humans. This is a new derivative of Aspartame that is 7,000 - 13.000 times sweeter than sugar.


Other Names: Neotame is sold under the brand name Newtame®


Sweetness compared to sugar: approximately 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar.


FDA Status: The FDA approved neotame for use as a general purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer in foods (except in meat and poultry), under certain conditions of use, in 2002. It is heat stable, meaning that it stays sweet even when used at high temperatures during baking, making it suitable as a sugar substitute in baked goods.


Other Facts: The FDA states it reviewed 113 studies on animals and humans to establish the safety of neotame for human consumption.


Neotame is a derivative of Aspartame. And being that it was only approved in 2002, the amount of studies are far fewer than those of the other sweeteners.


Advantame


TLDR; FDA approved since 2014 and they say it’s safe and have reviewed 37 studies supporting it’s safety for humans. It’s 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar.


Other Names: n/a

Sweetness compared to sugar: It is approximately 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose).


FDA Status: FDA approved advantame for use as a general purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer in foods (except in meat and poultry), under certain conditions of use, in 2014. It is heat stable, meaning that it stays sweet even when used at high temperatures during baking, making it suitable as a sugar substitute in baked goods.


Other Facts: The FDA states that it reviewed data from 37 animal and human studies designed to identify possible toxic effects on humans including the immune and reproductive systems.





Steviol glycosides


TLDR; 34 companies said they did the research and that Steviol glycosides are safe for human consumption. FDA did not disagree.


Other Names: Steviol glycosides are natural constituents of the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni, a plant native to parts of South America and commonly known as Stevia. Brand names are Truvia® PureVia® Enliten®


Sweetness compared to sugar: They are non-nutritive sweeteners and are reported to be 200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar.


FDA Status: The first GRAS notice that the FDA received for steviol glycosides was received in 2009 from a third party tester on behalf of McNeil Nutritionals, LLC. Since then there have been 34 other GRAS notifications.


FDA has received many GRAS Notices for the use of high-purity (95% minimum purity) steviol glycosides including Rebaudioside A (also known as Reb A), Stevioside, Rebaudioside D, or steviol glycoside mixture preparations with Rebaudioside A and/or Stevioside as predominant components. FDA has not questioned the notifiers' GRAS determinations for these high-purity stevia derived sweeteners under the intended conditions of use identified in the GRAS notices submitted to FDA.


Other Facts: The use of stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts is not considered GRAS and their import into the United States is not permitted for use as sweeteners.


The first GRAS notice came to the FDA in 2009 from McNeil Nutritionals, LLC. According to this Johnson and Johnson website: McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, is a global marketer of innovative nutritional products. McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, markets SPLENDA® Sweetener Products, VIACTIV® Dietary Supplements, LACTAID® Milk and Dietary Supplements and BENECOL® Products.






Luo Han Guo fruit extracts

TLDR; 8 companies said they did the research and that monk fruit extracts are safe for human consumption. FDA did not disagree.

Other Names: Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle fruit extract (SGFE) contains varying levels of mogrosides, which are the non-nutritive constituents of the fruit primarily responsible for the characteristic sweetness of SGFE. Nectresse® Monk Fruit in the Raw® PureLo®


Sweetness compared to sugar: SGFE, depending on the mogroside content, is reported to be 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar.


FDA Status: Siraitia grosvenorii has GRAS status which has not been questioned by the FDA. FDA has received eight GRAS Notices for SGFE. The first was sent in 2010. FDA has not questioned the notifiers’ GRAS determination for SGFE under the intended conditions of use identified in the GRAS notices submitted to FDA.


Other Facts: The GRAS status notice was filed by James Heimbach, PhD. It’s interesting to note that his PhD is in psychology. And according to his website he previously worked at the FDA prior to starting his own company. He served on an FDA division that was responsible for implementing the USDA Food Pyramid. He has filed for GRAS status on over 100 ingredients.

The company that Dr. Heimbach filed the GRAS status on behalf of is Bio Vittoria Ltd. Their website www.biovittoria.com redirects to https://monkfruitcorp.com/ where they explain their “natural” process to create monk fruit extract:

The fruit is crushed to release its natural, sweet juice. The crushed fruit is mixed with hot water to make a sweet infusion. The infusion is filtered, leaving a clear, sweet juice.

“The infusion is filtered and leaves a clear juice that contains the sweet anti-oxidants and a small amount of natural sugar. The juice retains the fruit sugars for a delicious, low-calorie product. Our monk fruit extract is made by separating the fruit sugars from the sweet anti-oxidants which are spray dried as a powder.”


Their GRAS status application states the following as their manufacturing process: BioVittoria provides information about the manufacturing process and specifications for SGFE...The supernatant is allowed to cool to 50°C and is then clarified by passing through an ultrafiltration membrane to remove pectin and large protein molecules. The supernatant is passed through an adsorption resin that removes organic substances, principally mogrosides, and allows unwanted compounds (e.g., reducing sugars and mineral salts) to pass through into the waste stream. The resin adhered material is released by elution with food-grade aqueous ethanol. The eluent is heated to approximately 60°C and placed under partial vacuum, allowing the ethanol and water vapor to be condensed and recycled. The mother liquor is then cooled to approximately ambient temperature and subjected to a decolorizing step. The decolorized mother liquor is then concentrated to approximately 40% soluble solids to yield the final SGFE product which may also be spray-dried at 120°C to obtain a powdered form of the product. BioVittoria reports that all materials and chemical reagents used in the manufacturing process are food grade.


What we say about non-nutritive sweeteners.


The FDA has compiled its research and it’s a resounding “YES. These compounds are safe for you to consume.”


“Safe.” You know what else is safe? Hiding in a bathroom during a tornado. Airbags. Hockey pads. This does not mean they are good for you or should be included in your daily routine or daily consumption.


In fact, we’ve compiled some of our own research.


And due to the fact that we are a medical fitness facility and our primary concern is the wellbeing of our member athletes, here are the things we’re the most worried about: how consumption of these products will affect your DAILY LIFE.


Don’t get us wrong - we are worried about whether or not they’ll give you cancer after 2 years or is daily consumption considered to have a toxic effect on your body long-term or if babies will grow third limbs in utero if consumption exceeds a certain limit. But our concern goes beyond that. In our opinion, the FDA’s concern does not.


So barring cancer, toxicity, and third limbs, we want to go farther and still want to know:


Does it give you headaches? Cause brain fog? Make you hungry? Make you gain weight? Affect your gut health?


These effects are the things that affect your daily decision making. And those decisions you make daily MATTER.


“I have a headache so I’m gonna skip the gym today.”


“I’m feeling foggy, I probably need to rest. I’ll take a nap instead of going to the gym”


“I’m working out but I’m still gaining weight!”


“I’m always hungry!”


“I’m eating less than I ever have and working out but I just don’t feel great.”


Feeling like that does not help you be healthier every day or be better than yesterday.


And it turns out - there are studies to support the fact that almost all of these non-nutritive sweeteners can have some type of negative effect.

They vary by degree based on the type of sweetener but it’s there.


  • This study shows the negative effects of Ace-K on cognition, your hormones and metabolism.



  • This study shows how nutritive sweeteners such as sucrose enhance the cellular inflammatory response that may favor the defense against infectious agents. AKA sugar causes an inflammatory response which we know is not good for recovery or keeping our body healthy.

  • This study shows the negative effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on the microbiome.


  • Or this study, from the the National Library of Medicine, shows how consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners, which were ”designed” to help you lose weight because they are zero-calories, actually cause you to gain weight because they cause you to crave more sugar and eat more food.


And as you can see above on the sweeteners who do not have FDA approval, only GRAS status, it’s the company telling us what’s safe. And per the description of BioVittoria’s manufacturing process on their website versus their GRAS status application, they leave out a few key details.


And we could go on and on and on but we won’t.


Just because something has zero calories doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Just because the FDA has claimed something is “Safe”, doesn't mean it’s good for you.


Actually, we love what the American Diabetes Association says: “Using sugar substitutes does not make an unhealthy choice healthy; rather, it makes such a choice less unhealthy.”


If you have questions about the sugar or “not sugar” in your diet, make sure you check in with one of our health coaches. Nutrition is a huge part of what we do at EHP Performance and we’re here to support people pursuing the absolute best versions of themselves every day.


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